Carroll: The commonality of grief

Meredith C. Carroll
Muck Off

At the precise moment you become a parent, there’s no longer such thing as just one worst nightmare. Anything and everything bad that could happen to your child is pretty much equally, inconceivably dreadful.

For the family of Meleyna Kistner, theirs came to pass one night in August when Christine Tinner drove over the center line of Highway 133. Kistner, 21, was behind the wheel of her boyfriend, Daniel Thul’s, car when they were struck. Asleep in the passenger seat at the moment of impact, Thul suffered an injury that nearly cost him a foot, while Kistner lost her life. Last week, a band of Kistner’s loved ones flew to Aspen from their homes in the Midwest to speak in court about their devastating loss, with many of them memorializing her tremendous intelligence and spunk while also expressing empathy for Tinner.

Tinner, 47, pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors in February — careless driving causing death and careless driving causing injury. She faces up to a year in prison along with some combination of community service and probation. She was to hear her legal fate Friday, but after suffering an emotional breakdown in court that necessitated a trip to the hospital, Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely delayed handing down a sentence until which time she could be present in court.

For Tinner’s parents, this accident has been their worst nightmare, too. Her mother addressed the court after Tinner was taken away by ambulance. While trembling nearly imperceptibly, she tenderly listed the highlights of her daughter’s life to date, which she characterized as one devoted to public service as well as her own children, whom Tinner has had difficulty visiting at their home in Crested Butte as a result of being “overwhelmed physically, financially and emotionally by the incident,” according to an article in Saturday’s Aspen Times.

Then there are Thul’s parents, who may have reasonably felt as if their worst nightmare played out in real life, too, when Tinner’s attorney, Dan Shipp, suggested that Kistner might still be alive if the Thuls had bought a safer and more expensive car for their son.

No matter what angle you look at it from, the situation is horrific for all parties. Not helping matters, though, is some of the gratuitous information brought up during sentencing. While many close to both the deceased and defendant have expressed remarkable grace, compassion and forgiveness, others were less generous.

Besides Shipp’s astonishingly tasteless suggestion about Thul’s car, Kistner’s stepmom dropped mention of Tinner’s prior divorces and restraining orders as if they confirmed the presence of poison, and called her behavior on that night in August “willful and wanton.” She also cited a prescription anti-anxiety pill found in Tinner’s car and used a prayer card bought at St. Mary Church in Kistner’s name — which Tinner misspelled — as evidence of a pattern of careless behavior. A day earlier she branded her an “evil woman.”

But there was no concrete proof suggesting Tinner’s actions were a result of anything other than bad luck. Shipp said guilt and heartache have been the dominant forces in her life following the accident, and she’d been itching to apologize to Kistner’s family, although her insurance carrier specifically forbade her from doing so. Kistner’s stepmom also questioned why, if Tinner claimed the accident was just that, she even bothered to hire a defense attorney, never mind one famous locally for his defense of drunk drivers.

While lashing out at the defendant might be justified in some cases — and only those who’ve lost a child can begin to fathom the Kistners’ anguish — it’s perhaps misguided when all signs point to plain-old misfortune about which the defendant herself also is destroyed. Some of Kistner’s kin rolled their eyes or scoffed in stage whispers from their seats in the courtroom at the idea that the suffering of Tinner’s family could run as deeply as theirs. Still, no one ever claimed it a contest of equals (of which no one wants to be the winner, anyway).

The families of Kistner, Tinner and Thul have more in common than not: their lives are forever changed by a profound heartbreak that could very well end up being irreparable. Further compounding the tragedy by slinging facts immaterial to the law during sentencing will likely just exacerbate, not heal, their wounds. Character assassination and vindictiveness might bring some temporary relief, but in the long run, that kind of fetid conduct seems more likely to further irritate fissures that already only have a long shot at best of ever fully healing.

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